everything grows with love

Stories about My Experiences with Writers & Illustrators Who Bring Light into the World…by Bonnie Ingber Verburg

Archive for Nancy Willard

The Genius Club: Memorable Remarks from Memorable Writers

Every day something enters my mind that was said to me by a writer or illustrator I’ve published. 

“There is no such thing as a bad scene–just a badly written scene.”  –Cynthia Voigt (about The Glass Mountain, adult)

(Speaking on an ALA panel) “Every time a question about race is asked, all of you turn to me to answer it. Why is that? Am I the only person here who has any kind of racial or ethnic background?” –Virginia Hamilton (followed by a long moment of silence) (Plain City; Time Pieces; Her Stories; In the Beginning; etc.)

“There is no such thing as a coincidence.”  –Leo Dillon (If Kids Ran the World; Aida; Pish, Posh; Rap a Tap Tap; The Girl Who Spun Gold; To Every Thing There is a Season; etc.)

“We know there will be always be people who won’t like the book we’re making, so we may as well make a book we like ourselves.”–Diane Dillon (about If Kids Ran the World)

“Moderation in all things, including moderation.”  –David Shannon (No, David!; Duck on a Bike; Too Many Toys; Jangles; etc.)

“That shows maturity, when you’re beginning to notice the insecurities of other people.” –Arnold Adoff (Flamboyan; In for Winter, Out for Spring)

(After I asked him the location of Hidden Valley, where he had just moved) “If I told you, then it wouldn’t be hidden, would it?” –Harry Nilsson

“Let’s make a funny blog about the worst dates we’ve ever had, and all our bad boyfriend experiences.” –Dawn Barnes (laughing) (The Black Belt Club)

(As he’s about to step on stage at Irvine Meadows, we skid up to him, late to the concert because of my young son’s Little League game.) “Bon, don’t hug me because I’m all covered with wires!  (He laughs and turns to my son.) I heard )you had a big game tonight. And you played second base. Did you catch any fly balls? (My son, looking out at 16,000 screaming fans, is speechless.) Hey, I like that Red Sox cap. I like the Red Sox, too.” –Jimmy Buffett (concert while working on A Salty Piece of Land)

“Love is the path to forgiveness.” –Audrey Wood (Blue Sky; A Dog Needs a Bone; It’s Duffy Time; etc.)

“Whistle while you work.”  –Don Wood (Merry Christmas, Big Hungry Bear; Into the Volcano; Jubal’s Wish; etc.)

“Look at that man’s eyebrows!”  –Karen Barbour, who notices everything (Little Nino’s Pizzeria; A Sip of Aesop; You Were Loved Before You Were Born; etc.)

“Are you sure you want to leave a toy gun instead of a tip?” –Barry Moser (The Dreamer; When Birds Could Talk & Bats Could Sing; In the Beginning)

(When I asked her how she writes such impressive speeches) “I always prepare. Always.”  –Jane Yolen (How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?)

“It’s catnip for boys.” –Mark Teague (about The Tree House that Jack Built)

(After I bragged that there was a blackout at the Algonquin Hotel, but I managed to grope through the room and find my high heels for dinner) “Look at your shoes. One is blue, and the other one is black.”  –Virginia Hamilton (The Bells of Christmas)

“Your son is the golden retriever of children.”  –Edward Gorey

(After I asked her how she was able to write an utterly believable scene where three angels appear in an ordinary American kitchen) “It’s the details.” –Nancy Willard (about The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake)

“The problem with illustrating this book is drawing and coloring all that plaid!” –Chuck Mikolaycak (about Tam Lin)

“People always tell you what you need to know about them–right away. It’s just a matter of whether or not you’re willing to listen.”  –Steve Faigenbaum

(After I blurted out that I was intimidated by working with a writer who was Poet Laureate and had won two Pulitzer Prizes)  “That’s the nice thing about teaching at Harvard. You have to read the classics because you teach them. But I still haven’t read Anna Karenina.” –Richard Wilbur (adult)

“She pulled her lips back and snarled. Then she said, ‘I hate that book. It’s the only thing I ever wrote for money.'” –Barry Moser (telling me about his meeting with Miss Eudora Welty after I asked him to illustrate her long out-of-print children’s book called The Shoe Bird)

“I’d like to wear her guts for garters.” –Robin McKinley (The Light Princess)

“I don’t care what Harcourt wants me to do. I am leaving this party. Madonna’s concert is on TV.” (And when I asked her what she loved so much about Madonna she said:) “You never know what she’s going to do next. Never.”  –Virginia Hamilton (In the Beginning: Creation Stories Around the World)

(Talking about her cat, Blueberry, who had chosen to spend the night with her downstairs instead of upstairs in the big cozy bed where I had slept as the honored guest) “I was worried he would go sleep upstairs, because he’s used to that bed, but no, he came down  here and stayed with me.”  –Cynthia Rylant (my first visit, in Kent, Ohio) (Dog Heaven; Mr. Putter and Tabby; The Dreamer; Poppleton)

(Showing me a diagram he’s made on a napkin at our table at a Mexican restaurant) “Responsibility is here (he points to one end of the line), and surfing is here (he points to the opposite end of the line). I’ve spent the last two years at Art Center trying to get those surf colors out of my art.” (about the possibility of illustrating Jimmy Buffett’s first book, The Jolly Mon, which was all island, ocean colors)

“Just do the work.”  –Leo Dillon (To Everything There Is a Season)

“Bonnie, please come out from under the table.” –Dav Pilkey (The Adventures of Captain Underpants; The Dumb Bunnies; The Hallo-weiner; Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot; Ook & Gluk)

“I would love to become a member of the Hearts Club.” –Michael Rosen (A Thanksgiving Wish)

“I used paper that’s recycled from elephant dung.” –Richard Jesse Watson (The Magic Rabbit)

“It’s the way the green and red vibrate.” –Lois Ehlert (about the cover of Growing Vegetable Soup)

“We do not approve of our food product being used on your book.” (Hormel Foods Corporation, manufacturers of SPAM, which was sitting on a table in the “Good Night Moon Room” cover of Dav Pilkey’s The Dumb Bunnies.) “We deny you permission to use it.”

(After I asked him why he drew a different dinosaur on every spread of the book) “It was too boring to draw an entire book of Tyrannosaurs.” –Mark Teague (How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?; The Tree House that Jack Built; LaRue for Mayor; etc.)

“If we don’t stop putting carbon into the atmosphere, we run the risk of climate change so drastic that the path of the Gulf Stream could change.” –Molly Bang (about her five books in the Sunlight Series, which began with My Light)

(After flying me into New York on his seaplane so I could get to work on time) “It’s worse than heroin.” –Jimmy Buffett (about the addiction of flying in seaplanes, while working on Swine Not?)

“Every year my grandfather sat us all down and told us the story of how he and his mother escaped from slavery in Virginia–so we would never forget.” –Virginia Hamilton

“This manuscript has to be published exactly as it is, without a single change. If you feel the need to change anything,  I will have to withdraw it and send it elsewhere.”  –Cynthia Rylant (in her cover letter enclosed with the manuscript Appalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds which happily was flawlessly written and did not require as much as a comma)

“I love Christmas.” –Bruce Wood (after inflating and enormous Santa suit that made him bigger than a VW bug) (Alphabet Mystery; The Deep Blue Sea; Ten Little Fish)

“Did I tell you that my friend Debra Frasier wrote a children’s book? And Crown Publishers is interested. Their sales rep saw it and sent it to New York, and they’re going to publish it.” (my sister JoAnn, on the phone) “Why didn’t you tell her to send it to ME?” (I ask, frustrated.) “OK, I will.” (JoAnn is a photographer and very close friends with Debra’s husband, who is also a photographer; Debra created the banner’s for Jo’s wedding. So Debra sends the dummy  to me, and although Crown is making her an offer, I am nuts-cuckoo-crazy about the book and persuade her to do it with me at Harcourt. That was On the Day You Were Born. Thanks, Jo!!!)

( During an interview, Jimmy Buffett was asked about several very attractive women characters in Tales from Margaritaville who were passionate but also very kind to their male lovers–and when it was time for the male lovers to say good bye and head off on another adventure, the women understood and warmly wished them well.) “Where do you find these women???” the interviewer asked. And Jimmy, with a pirate’s laugh, said, “It’s fiction! I make them up!”

“When I was little, I always wished I had a big robot friend.” –Dav Pilkey, about Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot

 

(to be continued…)

Leo & Diane Dillon: The Heart with Wings

My love for Leo and Diane Dillon is so deep it is woven through the fabric of my entire being, and when I try to find words to explain it, I don’t know where to begin. My trust and faith in them is such a part of who I am that I don’t know if I could publish books without them. Leo died in May, and I have not accepted that yet. He was, with Diane, my mentor and soul mate for almost three decades. When I try to write about it today, the words elude me. I am reminded of the last page of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. “‘It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.’/ Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them…. /Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs./I am haunted by waters.”

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So I will begin at the beginning, on a cold New York City day in 1987, when we are supposed to meet at Cafe des Artistes, and I am running down a street in my short black skirt, ripped black sweatshirt, velvet-trimmed black wool coat, and an off-white scarf woven by my great grandmother that is really a shawl, and it is so long I wrap it around my neck and it still drapes down to my feet. My hair is long, and in my right ear I have earrings made of bones and beads, and in my left ear I have only three studs. That is the rock ‘n roll fashion. My black suede heels are from the 40s, from the same vintage shop as my coat, and I am terrified because I am dressed like the wife of a rock musician–which is what I am–rather than dressed like a publishing executive–which is what I also am. I have never met the Dillons, and I don’t think they will like the rockstar wife blowing into their lunch. They are hugely famous and distinguished in my field of children’s books. I desperately want to work with them on a particular project I’ve cooked up, and I do not have time to take a cab back to the Algonquin to change into more appropriate clothes. I am already on the edge of running late.

I give up on the Algonquin idea and decide this will just have to be another low point in my career, and they will think I am fluff and flighty, which goes with the fact that I live in Santa Monica with my guitarist/songwriter husband, Ira Ingber, who tours with bands like the Eagles and Rita Coolidge and writes songs for Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt and Joe Cocker, to name a few. I whoosh into the restaurant on the heels of a big gust of wind, and there, at a table against the wall, is Leo Dillon.

Click.

I know from the moment I see the man, from the first time I set eyes on him, that he will be one of the most important people in my entire life, and I am dead right about that. I sit down, apologize for the way I look, and without any pretty introductions, we launch into a discussion of what I can only describe as the many masks of God and the broad things people have dreamed up to try to capture God in words and stories, and it is a kind of Joseph Campbell investigation, and then Diane Dillon walks in the door and joins us. She, also, sends an arrow straight into my heart, and they will be my friends and partners in book creation as long as we live. Good times, joyful times, frustrating times, horrible times, we are connected for life.

How about that?

So it is fitting, in 1992, when I begin building the Blue Sky Press at Scholastic Inc., that the first people who join up are Leo and Diane–and Virginia Hamilton, who actually was the first. And when the company does not like Angel City Books, my name for the imprint, but agrees to The Blue Sky Press, I am OK with that name as long as the logo is a heart with wings. Because the heart with wings will say it all. And Leo and Diane draw the logo. I have their original drawing hanging on the door of my home office. If you look at it closely, it is clearly their work.

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By the time I start Blue Sky, we have already published Leontyne Price’s Aida and Nancy Willard’s Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymous Bosch at Harcourt.

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We launch Blue Sky with Nancy’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and will go on to publish a stunning and powerful body of work,

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including many books the Dillons will write themselves, such as Jazz on a Saturday Night and Rap a Tap Tap: Here’s Bojangles, Think of That! There will be collaborations with Virginia such as Her Stories and The Girl Who Spun Gold, a miraculous picture book that shows a broad range of art styles as it reveals the span of human emotion in To Every Thing There Is a Season, which for me is partially an attempt to make a book that can help people through grief. Leo and Diane helped me through the loss of my parents, as they help me through everything that happens in my tangled life. They still do. In my bedroom I have two black-and-white photographic portraits Leo took of me more than twenty years ago at their kitchen table, which is where we have shared endless meals and discussions that have gone late, late, late into the night, talking about life, death, love, family, politics, writing, and–most of all–art.

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Cover of The Girl Who Spun Gold

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Cover of To Every Thing There Is A Season

Today I will call Diane and check in with her to say hello and see how she’s feeling. We both have birthdays coming up. Last week she sent me the last pieces we needed to discuss for If Kids Ran the World, which is the picture book she was working on with Leo when he had to pause to have his unexpected surgery. The paintings are fanciful and light-hearted, and they leave me breathless. Leo caught a staph infection in the hospital after his surgery, if you are wondering why he died. Do I sound angry? I am.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

When things have been rocky, Leo always said the same thing. “Just do the work.” It is a refrain that has enabled me–and countless others, I’m sure–to drop my resentment about the sticky mess of corporate encounters and instead push it aside so I can focus on the books in front of me. They are ultimately what feed my soul, not the clapping of critics or the encouragement of some publishing executive. It always comes back to the books. Always. The Dillons have always been Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena,” and in everything they do, they dare greatly. Which is not to say that critics understand it. A lot of the time they don’t. “Just do the work” is an antidote for the people who will always feel more comfortable with the art on Hallmark cards than they do with a multicultural book that challenges

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

the reader the way To Every Thing There Is a Season inevitably does.

There is no tidy way of ending this essay by putting my relationship with Leo and Diane into a neat little gift box to display, and there is so much more to say about the limitless genius, kindness, and generosity of these artists that I will continue to write about them. More than anything, I feel enormous gratitude for the opportunity and the blessing of having them beside me all these years. Together and apart, they are the rock foundation upon which everything else has been built…my roots, my heart, my wings.

Art from the book Leo & Diane Dillon were finishing up last May; I'll be publishing this in Fall 2014.

Art from the book Leo & Diane Dillon were finishing up last May; I’ll be publishing this in Fall 2014.

NANCY WILLARD: The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake

When Nancy Willard picks up a pen, wings flutter in Heaven, and a circle of delighted angels begin quilting with their magic needles. What is spun out into the world through their collaboration with Nancy is lighter than air. I love many, many books by Nancy–all of them, in fact–and one of my favorites is a story she sent me when I was editing and publishing books at Harcourt: The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

In this perfectly written story, a girl wants to make her mother a birthday present, and although she has some earthly ideas, she remembers the tale of a unique cake baked by her grandmother in childhood–a cake her mother loved and has always longed to eat again. In addition to its heavenly flavor, a golden thimble is always found in the cake. But where to find the recipe? The girl goes to great lengths to follow clues until she indeed finds the mysterious recipe in order to give her very nice mother a very special birthday gift.

She carefully gathers the ingredients and follows the recipe’s directions–which include writing EVOL in the sugar with her finger, something I still do when I’m making pancakes for my son. Behold, as the cake is baking, the kitchen is scented with a fragrance so delicious the moon must certainly tilt in its orbit. What happens is unexpected, but the scene is written so flawlessly that it rings completely true. Three angels appear in the girl’s kitchen, drawn by the scent of the baking cake. And to the girl’s dismay, they each gently but firmly want a slice–a substantial slice–of that High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake. (How do you say no to three angels?)

I’m not telling the story well–my pen is not guided by angels tonight, and writing about Nancy’s flawless fiction feels lumpy and inadequate. But in the end, after the angels have devoured the entire cake with great happiness and satisfaction, the girl wakes up with no present to give her beloved mother. She only had enough ingredients to bake one cake. With great angst and disappointment she watches her father give a satisfactory gift to her mother, but now it is her turn, and she is empty handed.

That is when the scent of a baking cake flows out of the kitchen, and to the girl’s surprise, a heavenly cake is in the oven, ready to be sliced and eaten. Her mother is delighted beyond words. As they all are amazed and thrilled by the delicious High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food cake, the girl finds the golden thimble has been tucked in her slice of cake. Somewhere in Heaven the angels are surely fanning their wings with pleasure…to have Nancy Willard tell their story so well.

It has been many, many years since I published that story, and Richard Jesse Watson’s beautiful but unconventional paintings added just the right splash of quirky energy to a tale that defied illustration, as most of Nancy’s stories do. (Who can illustrate the writing of an angel?)

This week, when my employer insisted I empty my storage space, I spent three days sifting through publishing memories I wasn’t expecting, and one of them was opening a dusty box that was filled with carefully wrapped, fragile gifts made for me by writers and illustrators over the years. I carefully removed brown paper from a small, hand-painted oven made by Nancy, with a glittering cake inside, of course. Her kindness, generosity, and sheer genius are so powerful they bring me to tears. This is the deep, razor-sharp pain I feel about children’s book publishing these days. Big publishing corporations no longer acquire angelic books of this nature because they assure us they can not sell them, and the loss to the world of children’s literature is devastating. Nancy WIllard’s extraordinary books all deserve to be in print and deserve to be delighting audiences, from her Newbery Medal-winning A Visit to William Blake’s Inn (which I did not publish) to The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake; Pish, Posh, Said Hieronynomous Bosch; The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; Cinderella’s Dress; Beauty and the Beast; An Alphabet of Angels; and The Flying Bed, which I did publish. I suppose it is a miracle that any intelligent book stays in print these days when the public is clamoring for TV tie-ins, and I’m guessing the word “poetry” nowadays sends people running away in fear. (It certainly sends publishers running.) Let’s face it, today so much depends on having the “right” cover and a mesmerizing topic that doesn’t take any risks or chances. How do we keep the light alive in ourselves and in our children? How do we protect and preserve the books that shine the light we need as a healthy, loving culture?

But back to the miracle of this wonderful book, published back in the time when such a unique, unconventional story was one of an ocean of highly creative books that were  embraced and marketed enthusiastically…and sold lots of copies and got into the hands of people who read and treasured them. This book was applauded and was chosen by Walden Books (one of the three big chains at the time) as one of their two “favorite children’s books to sell” of the year.

I see, as I write these pieces, that each book is inevitably tied to my own personal experiences during the time I was working on the project, and that is true of The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake. The night before my mother had brain surgery, I had the manuscript of this book in my bag in her room at the hospital. I read her the story, and of course she loved it, with the part of her brain that could still listen to stories–she always loved poetry, especially. The next day, after the surgeon left–quietly and impersonally telling my sisters and me that the cancer he’d found in Mom’s head was the “astro” kind, called that because it grows so fast–I kissed my mom and gave her the good news that the doctor had found something very surprising in her head. It was the golden thimble in Nancy’s story. At first she looked confused, but then she laughed. Thank you, Nancy Willard.

I have the painting of the golden thimble in my dining room, and tomorrow I will carefully fix the cracked leg on the magical oven Nancy made for me all those years ago. It belongs in a place where I will see it every day. If nothing else comes from the sadness of having to give away 36 years of books, the joy of finding Nancy’s lost oven will make up for it.

Nancy Willard, Leo & Diane Dillon, David Shannon, Mark Teague, Molly Bang, Jane Yolen, Rodman Philbrick, Don & Audrey Wood: You are the light. You are not the lamp or the electricity or the bulb. You are the light. 

What a fearsome beauty and responsibility it feels this late night to have been given the gift of being one of the guardians of that light.

In eight days I will celebrate my 58th birthday. I think I will ask my son to help me make an angel food cake. After all, it has always been my favorite. Who knows? The Book Angel hangs out in my back yard, and miracles happen every day. We will read Nancy’s picture book, and I will tell my son about the grandmother he never had the good fortune to meet, and the golden thimble. I will have a loving day, but at the end of it, I will be sure to begin this new year of my life with my favorite lines at the end of a different story by Nancy Willard:

“He whose face gives no light will never become a star.” –William Blake

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